Thursday, August 4, 2016

Quattro Stelle: 2006 - Qualifications & Group Stages


This is the tenth post in a weekly series highlighting Italy’s 4 World Cup wins from qualifications to the finals. Read the ninth post here.

Most if not all of us remember the events of 2006 well, but I will try to briefly recap them here as I have similarly done with the other three World Cups. Feel free to add your own thoughts and memories for the matches within each post in the comments section.

The bid for the 2006 World Cup was handed to Germany in July of 2000, but had been expected to go to South Africa at the time. Also of note with this World Cup was the biggest TV rights deal in FIFA history at the time, when the United States paid $425 million for the rights to broadcast in both English and Spanish all of the World Cup events through 2014. Marketing also became a controversial issue with major sponsors Budweiser and Adidas getting attacked by their competitors over exclusive rights at the World Cup. In the end, football took center stage, as it should.



Qualifications
For this tournament, 197 teams were vying for qualification, with only 32 spots available. For the first time ever, the defending champion, in this case, Brazil, were not given an automatic qualification berth. However, the host nation, Germany, still was, so that left 196 teams vying for 31 spots.

The distribution of spots was as follows: UEFA, 13 places for 51 teams; CAF (Africa), 5 places for 51 teams; CONMEBOL, 4.5 places for 10 teams; AFC (Asia) 4.5 places for 39 teams; CONCACAF, 3.5 places for 34 teams; and OFC (Oceania), .5 places for 12 teams. The regions with .5 spots were involved in inter-confederation playoffs to determine the lowest spot, namely AFC vs. CONCACAF and CONMEBOL and OFC.

For their part, Italy topped their group in qualification, with Norway, Scotland, Slovenia, Belarus, and Moldova behind them. This would be Italy’s 12th consecutive World Cup finals appearance, and 16th all-time. They went into the tournament ranked 13th in the World by FIFA. It is of note that this tournament would be the first tournament since 1982 which would see representation from all six confederations. 

An impressive Opening Ceremony to an intense tournament

And Then There Were 32….
The 32 teams that qualified for the finals were: Angola, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, England, France, Germany (hosts,) Ghana, Iran, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Serbia and Montenegro, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Ukraine, United States.

With qualification complete, the draw for the tournament was held in December 2005 and featured football legend Pelé and German celebrity Heidi Klum. Italy were drawn into Group E with the Czech Republic, Ghana, and the United States. While Group C was given the unfortunate title of the “Group of Death, Group E was widely acknowledged to be the tightest group. Which, in true World Cup fashion, meant that anything could happen.

The underestimated squad

Gli Azzurri, circa 2006
With the clouds of Calciopoli brewing the worst storm in calcio history at home, the Azzurri left for Germany with many uncertainties about their futures in football. Add to that the apparent suicide attempt of Pessotto during the World Cup, and it could be argued that the players might be distracted. But what is distracting for some unites others, and this was a team focused on doing something great.

Lead by coach Marcello Lippi, the squad included Gianluigi Buffon, Cristian Zaccardo, Fabio Gross, Daniele De Rossi, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Barzagli, Alessandro Del Piero, Gennaro Gattuso, Luca Toni, Francesco Totti, Alberto Gilardinno, Angelo Peruzzi, Alessandro Nesta, Marco Amelia, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Mauro Camoranesi, Simone Barone, Filippo Inzaghi, Gianluca Zambrotta, Simone Perotta, Andrea Pirlo, Massimo Oddo, and Marco Materazzi.


Group Stage
Italy’s first match was vs. Ghana at the FIFA WN Stadion Hannover in Hanover on June 12th in front of a crowd of 43,000. The squad came out in traditional Italian defensive style, but decided to mix it up a little and play more offensively part of the way through the match. Cannavaro featured heavily, clearing anything that moved out of his path. Totti, who was playing with a metal plate in his ankle and just returning from injury, started, but was replaced with Camoranesi in the second half. However, it was Andrea Pirlo who scored the first goal in the 40th minute, a nice shot from 20 yards out.

Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien, and Stephen Appiah would go on to be criticized for their inability to finish and their disappointing play, but not so with the Azzurri. Not content to play catenaccio football on this day, Iaquinta, having been subbed on for Gilardino, took the ball away after a weak back pass from Ghana and dribbled around Ghanaian keeper Richard Kingson to bring the score to 2-0 in the 83rd.

Brazilian referee Carlos Simon was fairly busy, with yellow cards distributed to Daniele DeRossi in the 10th minute, Sulley Muntari in the 41st, Mauro Camoranesi in the 62nd, Asamoah Gyan in the 65th, and Vincenzo Iaquinta in the 88th. But cautions aside, Italy did the opposite of what they usually did in these tournaments: start strong. A convincing 2-0 win against a strong team.



Their next match, held on June 17th, was vs. the United States at Fritz Walter Stadion in Kaiserslautern with 46,000 fans in attendance. Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda, putting in a great performance in this match, would become more of a focal point than he would have liked to, since this match saw more controversy than substance.

Totti started the action with a yellow in the 5th minute, followed by Eddie Pope with a yellow for the USA in the 21st. Gilardino decided to switch things up and actually score a goal in the 22nd, putting Italy up 1-0. But in the 27th minute, Zaccardo (still a curse word in my house) apparently felt sorry for the Americans, and he and his unlucky leg, were in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time, so he scored an own goal that put the scoreboard at 1-1. (Considering the Americans only scored one other goal in the group stage before going home, I guess it’s no surprise that they still take credit for this.)

However, that was hardly the controversy. One minute later, Daniele De Rossi nearly killed Brian McBride with a horrifying, shocking, and vicious elbow to the face. Well, at least that’s how the Americans tell it. Apparently, it was the first time they had seen blood on a football field, especially since everyone knows that footballers are just like overgrown altar boys and would never dream of having any contact whatsoever with another player.

So in the 28th minute, De Rossi was rightfully sent off, while the feeble McBride barely clung to life as he received not one, not two, but all of three stitches in his metal-plate laden face (it’s amazing he survived!!) Because the Americans don’t even call the sport by the proper name, perhaps they were thus rightfully shocked by this, the most heinous foul ever, and thus their media exploitation of the horror of McBride’s blood-covered face may have influenced FIFA’s decision to extend De Rossi’s ban to 3 matches (one for each of McBride’s stitches?) Whatever. Have you never seen a compound fracture, a bloody concussion, cleat-torn flesh that requires double-digit stitches and months to heal? McBride was lucky. I am so sick of hearing their sensationalized stories. Come talk to me when you learn the name of the sport and also, maybe actually win a World Cup?

Italy was down a man, but the completely innocent and unassuming Pablo Mastroeni would change that in stoppage time of the first half. Who knew that going into another player (Pirlo) with 2 feet, studs up was a straight red card? Well, except for every other nation in the world who plays the sport of football. Mastroeni was sent off for a foul possibly even more dangerous than De Rossi’s, but with only the one match ban. (It’s all about the blood factor in America, I guess.)

Coming out for the second half, the playing field (10 v 10) and the scoreboard (1-1) were level. Eddie Pope, already on a yellow, decided to give Italy the man advantage with a tackle on Gilardino that earned him a second yellow and thus a sending off. Despite this, Kasey Keller made some very nice saves after Del Piero subbed on in the second half and kept him honest, with Keller keeping Zaccardo’s gift to America pristine. Italy had the only three shots on target with Americans taking eight shots but none of them on target. It was a match that left a bad taste in your mouth, but in the end, it would be the only point the US would get in the tournament. Which they still take credit for “earning” to this day. (Zaccardo says “Prego.”)



On June 22nd at the FIFA WM Stadion Hamburg in Hamburg, the Czech Republic faced off against Italy in front of a crowd of 50,000 in a much more civil affair. In fact it was a match where many gave Marco Materazzi the man of the match honors. (Go ahead, double check that, you are not seeing things.) After all, coming in for the injured Nesta in the 17th, it was his header in the 26th that opened the scoring. 1-0 Italy.

Mexican referee Benito Archundia then dispersed a caution to Gennaro Gattuso in the 31st minute, followed by another to Jan Polak in the 35th. In the 2nd minute of stoppage time of the first half, Polak took Totti down from behind, earning a second yellow and an early trip to the showers. The Czechs played the entire second half down a man, and even the amazing Pavel Nedved could not beat his Juventus teammate Buffon in goal. Inzaghi, subbing on for Gilardino in the 60th, also found the back of the net in the 87th. Another convincing 2-0 victory for the Italians, and they moved on to the round of 16.

At a post game press conference, Marcello Lippi said, “We deserve to qualify. We played two great games to beat Ghana and Czech Republic. They are two very difficult teams.” Sadly, only an hour later, a verdict was announced in the Calciopoli trial, with the initial recommendation that all teams implicated be relegated. It seemed like all they had done for Italian football on the pitch was being undone at home. Heart-wrenching for both the players and their fans worldwide.






This is part ten of a 12 week series I originally wrote for the now defunct Italy World Cup Blog five years ago. The series will now appear here weekly as a tribute to the Azzurri teams of the past.